The Accidental Anarchist is about a man who was sentenced to death three times in the early 1900s in Russia — and lived to tell about it. He also happened to have been my grandfather, and the book is based on the diaries he kept beginning in 1905.
Tell us something about yourself.
The story, or the opportunity to write a book based on the diaries, which was what my grandfather had intended to do, has been in my family for 3 generations. Portions of it were published 35 years ago, but the entire story was never told.
I hadn’t actually thought about it, but once I started working on the book, I realized that, somehow, I had always known that I would be the one to complete it — perhaps because I was named for the young girl who had saved my grandfather from his 3rd death sentence.
My father was Shimon Wincelberg, the first Orthodox writer in Hollywood, and though he kept our family away from what he saw as the corrupting effects of Hollywood (especially for anyone who wanted to remain Orthodox). I was asked to play the next door neighbor to Little Richie on the Dick Van Dyke show. And my godmother was the executive producer of Dynasty.
But lest you think that these ‘connections’ helped me get the book published — they didn’t.
What inspired you to write this book?
In a word: guilt.
The very day my grandfather said that he had finished writing down all the stories he wanted to tell, and asked my mother to help him translate them into English (he wrote in Yiddish), he passed away. My father — son-in-law to my thrice-convicted grandfather, whom my father had never met — worked with my mother to translate the diaries from the handwritten Yiddish into English, and published stories from the first 12 of the 28 notebooks in 1975. He had planned to publish the remainder, but he too passed away before he could complete the task.
A few years ago, my mother, at age 81, said that she wanted to see her father’s story told “during [her] lifetime.” And as I didn’t want my children to inherit the guilt that had been passed down from generation to generation, I knew what needed to be done.
How did you publish this book? Why did you decide to self-publish)?
As my mother was 81 at the time she expressed her desire to see the book published, I didn’t want to risk going through a lengthy process with agents and publishers, which could easily outlast her. Plus, her request was made at a time when half the editors at NY publishing houses had been laid off. I knew that meant that publishers could only afford to publish (what they expected to be) blockbusters — John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Jonathan Kellerman, etc.
So I learned what i needed to know about self-publishing and did it myself, without even attempting to find an agent. And I’m glad I did. I held myself to the same standards I would have had had I been planning to circulate the book to agents, I made sure it was a fast-paced read, and retained my grandfather’s voice and his unique sense of humor that helped him survive poverty, starvation and the horrors of war. And while the stories he told were interesting in themselves, it was his tone that made his stories unique.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
My father said that he became a writer because he had failed at everything else. I tried a lot of things and was successful at a number of them, but I kept coming back to writing; I only wanted jobs that involved writing as a major component.
Plus, in school, I realized that the only way I could think was by writing. Even today, if I have something difficult to process, I write out a conversation with myself and figure it out that way.
What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?
‘Following a writing teacher’s Killing your darlings.’ This was a piece of advice I got in some writing class, I think. And I like to think that, some day, I’ll publish a book with all the chapters and scenes that I’ve had to cut from other material because they either didn’t advance the story or illustrate something about character. It’s very hard to take out those gems, but I never delete them — just put them into a separate file for “Someday, Maybe” use.
How do you do research for your books?
I compared the stories in my grandfather’s diaries to recorded history to make sure that the stories – about certain battles during the Russo-Japanese War — were in the correct order. My grandfather admitted that he often had no idea what year it was, let alone date, but he had the seasons correct. There was an interesting situation where I read that the rail tracks for the Trans-Siberian Railway had been laid across Lake Baikal by the time of the Russo-Japanese War, but when my grandfather was there (during the war) those tracks had no been fully laid yet. But it’s likely that the fact of the completion of the rail across the ice was recorded as completed, with the date more or less specified, by someone who may not have known the precise date when it had been completed, and a scholar reporting on this generations later had to take the word of what was, by then, recorded history. Makes you wonder how much else we take as fact might also not be exactly true.
I also tried to locate the characters in the book. Some, even obscure ones, I had no difficulty finding, but there were a few, in particular, characters whom I really liked, that I could not find. In one case, I know it’s because his name had been changed to protect his descendants, but in another case it was a relative of Czar Nicholas II whom I could not find. While there were numerous Captain Mikhailoff’s in history, none of the ones I found had lived at the same time or died in the same way. (And I spelled Mikhailoff with every conceivable variation). That was disappointing.
Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?
I never knew my grandfather; he passed away 7 years before I was born, so the only way that I knew him was through his writing. And it made me regret, even more, not having had the chance to know him.
I also felt, to my disappointment, that I didn’t have the same strength my grandfather had. In the situations that he described, I cannot imagine doing the things he did, but perhaps it isn’t fair to put someone who grew up at the end of the twentieth century into a situation that took place in the beginning of the century and expect the same approach to challenges that we would not see today.
What are you reading now?
I just finished The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht, and downloaded two books to my Kindle that I’m looking forward to reading. Both are for upcoming book club meetings: Sweeping Up Glass, by Carolyn Wall (author of The Glass Castle); and: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson.
In the background, I’m still reading Infinite Jest, meaning that I read one section of Infinite Jest in between each book I finish.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
My favorite author is Philip Roth, and Operation Shylock, in particular. Whereas Truman Capote has been credited with creating the genre of ‘creative’ or narrative non-fiction, Roth has done something truly unique in Operation Shylock. The book is about the writer, Philip Roth, attending the trial of John Demjanuk, aka “Ivan the Terrible” from the concentration camps, and meeting another man who purports to be Philip Roth, attending the same trial. It is a yet unnamed genre in which the reader cannot tell whether and when he is reading fiction or non-fiction.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I have not had time to start on my next book, though I know what it will be about. And as it’s set in a particular period of time, I’m reading books that were written during that time to get the sense of the language I’ll use when I write the story.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
The best advice I’ve been given (though I can’t remember the source) is to remember that the writer and editor wear different hats. When you’re writing, don’t give in to the temptation to edit, to keep rewriting the same paragraph of sentence; just let it flow without censoring yourself. And when you put on the editor’s hat, read like someone coming to the material for the first time. (I recognize that this is extremely difficult to do; you can’t forget what you know. But one thing I’ve noticed as I keep going through the book is that there were certain areas where I felt, ‘oh, I have to read this again.’ When you have that feeling, you’ve found an area that needs a lot of work or cutting, in general. I also recommend that when you ask friends or relatives to read your work, that they understand that you really want to know what doesn’t work for them at a time when you can still fix it. If you only want compliments, you shouldn’t be writing for publication.
What are you doing to promote your latest book?
I speak at various museums, book clubs, book fairs and other events, most notably the Museum of Tolerance in NY and LA, have been interview on radio, and in general I share information about the timeliness of the book, showing why it is still relevant today when several of the issues it refers to happened up to 105 years ago. (But history repeats itself)
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
I maintain a blog at: http://xsnerg-accidentalanarchist.blogspot.com/